The bandwidth and speed of 5G networks promises a new era of capabilities and productivity for organizations. Use of the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles and remote control critical infrastructure will expand because of 5G’s faster data rates, lower latency and greater capacity. By 2035, the total value chain created by 5G is projected to be worth $3.6 trillion, according to IHS Markit.
However, in the government sector, adoption of the 5G standard brings its own set of challenges.
In a recent webinar for Silicon Valley Innovation Center, Dr. Tony Triolo, the Director of Wireless Advanced Technologies at Perspecta Labs, summed it up this way: “5G is designed to handle many different types of use cases. However, it was not designed for applications like the Department of Defense military applications or even public safety.”
For example, 5G is not effective today for military aircraft travelling at supersonic speeds. Also, military operations often require heavy use of uplink capabilities so that data’s direction of travel is more from the user equipment such as a handset to the base station. But, 5G and its predecessor 4G are more geared toward downlink communications, where data moves from the base station to the user equipment.
A further complicating factor for government applications stems from 5G’s limited range. 5G networks are designed with cell sizes of 1-2 miles, at most, far less than some military operations that require communications to span the globe. To accommodate this, 5G does make some provision for device-to-device connectivity without base stations. Use cases with autonomous vehicles and infrastructure are showing success here.
However, Triolo says that more development is needed to overcome the uncertain availability of all pieces in the 5G chain. “A public safety team in a building may have their signal blocked from the base station, but they still need to talk to each other. That’s really not supported in the standards.”
From a defense point of view, one of the limitations of 5G is its designated market of commercial vendors operating within licensed spectrum. Military environments, on the other hand, can be much more unpredictable, if not openly hostile.
“In tactical environments someone may be intentionally jamming you or there interference from things that are out of your control,” Triolo adds.
In spite of short-term challenges, experts see a future for 5G in defense and public safety. Custom-built software and extra hardware attachments known as appliqués are one way to add functionality. At Perspecta Labs, development is underway on hardware that connects to standard 4G or 5G equipment, allowing it perform even in high-speed military aircraft. This “doppler-compensating” appliqué has been flight-tested at the Edwards Air Force base in Southern California, and lab-tested with speeds of up to Mach 4.0. With its announcement this year about 5G testing programs, the U.S. Department of Defense plans to increase its use of the technology and adapt it to suit the armed forces.
“There will be greater adoption by both military users and first responders as progress is made in modifying 5G so that it meets security requirements. We’ll see more of this within two years.”